Cannes Movie Review: Fair Game (2010)

Naomi Watts and Sean Penn in Fair Game
Photo: Summit Entertainment

With ten Oscar nominees for Best Picture I think it’s pretty safe to say that Summit’s Fair Game will be one of them. I don’t say this because it completely bowled me over, but because it’s not an overly aggressive political feature, but one that sticks pretty much to the facts of the case as detailed by outed CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson in her 2007 book of the same name, which derived from a statement Karl Rove made to MSNBC’s Chris Matthews in July of 2003 saying, “Wilson’s wife is fair game.”

The “Wilson” Rove was referring to is Joe Wilson, played here by Sean Penn, looking awfully disheveled for most of the feature as his wife, Valerie (Naomi Watts), has gone from being a covert CIA agent investigating the existence of WMDs in the Middle East to being outed by Robert Novak in the “Washington Post.”

All of this comes about as President Bush has used an operation Wilson did pro-bono for the CIA, investigating claims Saddam Hussein purchased uranium out of Niger in support of invading Iraq. Wilson’s report said there was no way the purchase took place and yet Bush went on to say, “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa,” in the State of the Union address in January 2003. On March 20 the United States invaded Iraq, and as Bush said in his radio address on March 22, the war was meant “to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), to end Saddam Hussein’s support for terrorism, and to free the Iraqi people.” Something obviously doesn’t add up.

These instances make up the details behind Doug Liman’s Fair Game, which is just as much a story about government injustice as well as a story of a marriage dealing with hard times, taking on all comers and never giving up. As a result, the film works. It’s fast-paced and comes to an end before you know it. Clocking in at only an hour and 46 minutes, it isn’t very long in the first place, but once it comes to a close you certainly wouldn’t mind if it had gone further.

Watts and Penn are excellent in the two lead roles of a couple doing what they can to survive as their government has thrown them under the bus for telling the truth. As Joe, Penn is forced to carry the brunt of the load as a disgraced ambassador called a liar. Outside of the distracting bird’s nest on Penn’s head, his performance is top notch and thankfully underplayed as Penn often loves to ramp up the drama for more emotional scenes.

Right beside him is Watts, who will most likely make a charge at the Best Actress category come nomination time in one of her better performances to date. Throughout much of the film she keeps a cool head thanks to her CIA training, but as the cracks begin to show Watts carries the performance home.

Some of the best scenes, though, happen early on, before Valerie has been outed and a gaggle of their friends are discussing politics around the table. As an audience we, along with Valerie and Joe Wilson, are aware of the details of the constantly mentioned “aluminum tubes” that pretty much gave reason for the invasion, but to hear a group of people digest and explain what they’ve heard on the news and watching as Valerie can’t say anything and Joe is trying to hold his tongue is dinner table tension at its best. Liman uses it as this film’s battlefield and it’s a tall order but he succeeds.

Liman, who’s probably best known for The Bourne Identity, not only directed the film, but served as his own cinematographer for the first time since Go in 1999. His ability to shoot action is well noted but this is almost popcorn politics kept lively through the use of predominately handheld camerawork. I’m not sure what kind of play this film will get with audiences, but Liman has created a wholly accessible political story using a couple’s relationship as the access point. The film moves at such a quick pace you’re hardly given time to breathe and whenever possible actual network news footage is used to service the story.

Additionally, the continuing of Liman’s relationship with composer John Powell again proves useful. Powell rarely creates a score that dominates the picture and here it offers all the right notes.

The only real question I have is just what was left on the cutting room floor. I’ve read Plame’s book and I thought it was deceitful to bring up the Vanity Fair article and then play as if it never happened, when in fact it did happen and the photo that resulted became a major problem. I also thought it was interesting to play it as if Plame was instantly dismissed from the CIA and to avoid much talk about the family’s money problems. Also, the sentencing of Scooter Libby (David Andrews) seems to come out of nowhere in the end, announcing the film is nearly over, which had me looking at my watch surprised it was all done.

Of course, knowing most of the story going in I was prone to notice omissions here and there, but some of the details that did remain — such as the small gifts Joe received from the free speeches he gave — were a nice touch. Probably the best aspect of the film is that it never seemed like a political movie with an agenda, but a political movie with a story. Green Zone earlier this year got caught up in the politics of it all and became “WMD this” and “WMD that,” whereas Fair Game uses the potential collapse of the Wilson’s marriage to tell a story that just happens to involve a major political blunder. It’s nice work and it certainly makes for a very solid effort.

Fair Game is played In Competition at the 63rd Cannes Film Festival and will be competing for the Palm d’Or.